My Gypsy Grandma

By contributing writer Kimberly-Anne Ford

When it came time to leave her expat life in Wellington, New Zealand, Kim hoped to settle down within walking distance of the Wakefield school. That dream now realized, she is here, raising her two children and surrounded by all the things she loves.

When my grandfather, who had hobbled my grandmother throughout their marriage, passed away, my Grandma became nomadic. My earliest memories of her involve playing in the suitcase she kept packed under her bed in case a travel opportunity arose, and packing and unpacking her overnight bag while she drove me back and forth from Montreal to my home in the rural village of St-Anicet, Quebec. The family called Grandma ‘The Gypsy’.

After her marriage ended, she travelled to at least a dozen countries, together with repeated trips throughout the U.S. and Europe. She took her two very wild granddaughters, myself and my cousin, on our first two European vacations. In her seventies she went to Australia and New Zealand.  Grandma’s last big trip, at ninety years old, was to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon.

My uncles decided that, even after her passing, her travels should continue. Grandma was cremated and some of her ashes were buried in the family plot, but a large portion was divided up into little vials by my uncle Arthur, a geologist. The idea was that, when any family member went on a trip or experienced a beautiful place that Grandma would have loved, some of her ashes should be spread there. This would allow us to continue to travel with our grandmother, if only in our imagination. My cousin and I decided to spread some of Grandma’s ashes in the place we now call home, Wakefield, Quebec.

Naomi and I were raised as sisters. Our respective moms, Linda and Diane, are sisters, so we are cousins, but you couldn’t tell us that. When my mother decided that I should leave my lax polyvalante (French Quebecois high school) for an all-girls’ private school an hour’s drive away from St-Anicet in downtown Montreal, she arranged for me to stay with my aunt Linda’s family from Monday to Friday. Our sisterhood was solidified with evenings spent sitting on the floor in front of Three’s Company or The Golden Girls having tea, chit-chatting away, while grandma crocheted on the couch.

During the drives to and from Naomi’s house to mine,  Grandma and I shared many hours of talking and listening to opera, stopping for poutine at Grandma’s favourite little cabane on the way. By this stage in her life, Grandma was always on the go. She would stay for a few days in the country then pack up and head to the city. The travel bug had bitten her hard and she was always itching to go somewhere. Until the age of eighty, without any hint or irony, Grandma worked, as she called it, “taking care of old people”. She drove seniors younger than herself to appointments, did shopping for them, cooked and cleaned their homes.

Grandma was frugal, saving her money for the next trip. She advised me to do the same, often telling me,

“It’s just as easy to marry a rich man or a poor man, Kim, so if you’re gonna marry, marry rich and see the world.”

When I was sixteen and Naomi was fourteen, Grandma took us on our first trip to Europe, to Paris and Nice. We were over the moon. Naomi, a Quebecoise girl, kept saying. “This will so improve my French”, which was somehow virtually non-existent.  I remember that flight perfectly, my first  ever, standing at the back of the plane watching the movie that played on the screen in front through the thick haze of cigarette smoke, while Grandma snoozed in our row towards the front of the craft.

“I’m so happy, Zinskers,” Naomi squealed. We still outlandishly call each other ‘Couzinsky’, ‘Zinskers’ or ‘Zinsk’ after Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. We devised our own secret language, which only a handful of our informed friends are allowed to decipher.

Once arrived in Paris, Naomi quickly learned all the French she needed to get by, and practiced it every chance she got: “Acceptez-vous les cheques de voyages?” “Ou est la toilette?”  “Avez-vous trois packets d’allumettes, s’il vous plait?” In Paris we became sophisticated enough to sip espresso in sidewalk cafes and buy More menthol cigarettes, yet remained youthful enough to race each other up and down the steps of the Sacre Coeur and cartwheel in front of the Louvre.

One day in Nice we gave our grandmother a figurative heart attack. We had walked up and down the pebbly beach and seen para-sailers gliding through the air above our heads.

I want to do that,” we said at the same time.
“Forget about it, please girls,” Grandma implored.

Hours later, as Grandma was getting ready for a snooze under a parasol, we told her, “We’re off for a walk up the beach”. Of course we were going to find the para-sailing guy to give it a go. When we returned home it was one of the first stories I heard Grandma tell our moms, “They told me they were going for a walk,” she said. “What, do they think I was born yesterday? But then I thought, give them the benefit of the doubt, so I did and I waited for them to come back. But then I saw one of those little witches flying through the air. Then later, the other one.”

Naomi and Grandma in Dublin

Despite the trouble we caused, two years later Grandma generously, wonderously, agreed to take us on our second European vacation, this time to Britain.

Grandma let us drink Guinness in pubs in Dublin. After she went to bed, we prowled the town. One night we were in the Hard Rock Café, and with the naiveté of schoolgirls we were convinced we’d see Bono, the lead singer of the band U2. Naomi was flirting with the bartender who bore a striking resemblance to Larry Mullen Jr., the drummer of the band. In no time at all she was invited behind the bar to help him mix up drinks. Such were the things we got up to while Grandma slept! Yet we knew she knew exactly what we were up to. She also knew that we were sensible enough not to get into too much trouble. Not too much.

When people refer to my cousin today, they say “How’s your sister doing?” or “Where’s your sister?” We’ve remained close throughout the years. Naomi and her husband Mike even relocated to the same city in Korea when I moved there, six months pregnant, after my then husband got a job as a geography professor.

Even when she was in Northern British Columbia and I was a world away in Wellington, New Zealand, our bond remained strong. Now, we are raising our families in the same village, our two homes a twenty minute walk apart. Grandma was so happy we were still close, in space and in time. One of my last memories of my grandmother is making gnocchi at Naomi’s house, Grandma swearing at the dough because it was too sticky

‘Home’ was a broad and nebulous term for our Grandma..”

.. but throughout her time as a wanderer she was always anchored by a sense of home, not as a singular place but as a place in which her loved ones lived. Home was where she rolled out pie dough, shared helpful household hints and took care of her grandkids. Many houses made up my Grandma’s home, and many people felt her loving presence in their homes. She is a loving ghost there still.  

One fall day between our two birthdays, Naomi and I planned to celebrate Grandma in the beauty of our shared village. We packed a picnic of Grandma’s favourites, which consisted of Cinzano and lemon to drink, asiago cheese and proscutto, crusty bread and olive oil for dipping (dinge dinge—dip dip as she would say in Italian) and thick slices of her famous lemon loaf. We walked through Wakefield and over the covered bridge. The fall colours were a brilliant palate of reds, oranges and yellows, framing the Gatineau River that rushed by. It was a perfect day. We lay our blanket on the rocks near the bright red, wooden bridge and laid out our spread. As we ate, we spent hours telling Grandma stories, reminiscing over our shared journeys.

One of the things I have from my Grandma is a page of handwritten poetry. I had brought it with me, and from ‘poems of love’ I read one of her favourites, by Browning:

Grow old along with me! 
The best is yet to be, the last of life,
for which the first was made.
Our times are in His hand who saith,
‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half.
Trust God. See all, nor be afraid!

And another, by Mick Jagger,

Well we all need someone we can lean on,
and if you want it, you can lean on me.

We took off our shoes and socks and wadded into the freezing cold water to our ankles. Naomi took out the little vial of ashes and spoke first. “We miss you Grandma when we see beautiful places all around the world, especially new places  you would have loved. But we miss you most when we are struck by the smell of a yummy spaghetti sauce on the stove, or when we read over a new recipe, curled up by a warm fire. We miss you most when we feel at home.”

Then I added, “You taught us about family Grandma, the importance of being able to count on one another, to share special moments. You  taught us to be there even for the not-so-momentous events in our lives. To value the everyday as being full of precious snippets of time. We’re building a life together Grandma. Your legacy lives on.”

Naomi took her phone out and quickly found the video she was looking for. Pavorati’s spectacular Nessun Dorma bellowed down river as we each released a sprinkle of ashes into the water that feeds the land we call home. Together we said, “Our home is your home, always, Grandma. Always.”